Venture Prizes added to turn hacking into business

Imagine a roomful of people trying to build things like a 3-D printer that prints in chocolate, a headband that stores and plays music, or a dating app that allows you to play a getting-to-know-you game with a potential match.

These are just a few of the projects that were pitched and worked on during Lehigh Valley Tech’s annual spring hackathon – #LVHack. This year, the event was hosted by AEDC in their Flex Launch and Coworking space at the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center. The participants spent two-and-a-half days at Bridgeworks building their hacks in order to compete for prizes at Sunday evening’s final presentations. The event drew more than 45 people, including dozens of students from Kutztown and Lehigh universities.

“We were very excited to be the host site for the hackathon this year,” said AEDC Program Manager Anthony Durante. “Bringing these folks into the incubator, even if it’s just for fun, gives us the chance to promote what we do and expose them to many of the resources that are available to the community of makers and aspiring entrepreneurs.”

The positive side of hacking

For some people the term “hacker” might bring to mind ominous images of hoodie-wearing, counter-culture types sitting behind a computer trying to steal credit card numbers and break into secure information systems for fun or personal gain. Although this group of hackers does exist, attracting much of the media’s attention, these “black hat” hackers are actually a small percentage of the greater hacking community.

“Hackers are tinkerers, developers, makers, and the like who aren’t satisfied with the way things have always been done,” explains Tim Lytle, head of Lehigh Valley Tech, the nonprofit organization that organizes #LVHack each year. “These hackers – who the community refers to as ‘white hat’ hackers – are willing to try something new, do something different, and just tear stuff apart to see how it works and figure out how they might do something different with it.”

Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted the importance of the hacker culture in his 2012 letter to investors, entitled “The Hacker Way,” which he published at the company’s IPO.

And the prizes go to…

This year’s prizewinners developed new uses of existing technology in order to create new experiences. First place team, Empty Room, utilized Google Cardboard, a downloadable DIY virtual reality viewer, to create an interactive experience that is meant to be a virtual art installation.

Second place team, Artemis Connect, strapped a microcomputer to a sweatband so that music could be downloaded and played for a runner who doesn’t want to carry their mobile device with them. Third place team, BlueFin, created a game meant to be played by people utilizing dating sites. As achievements are made in the game, hidden “facts” are revealed about the other player meant to help one learn more about their potential new mate.

Prizes for the hack competition included remote controlled quadcopters, RaspberryPi microcomputers, and other fun devices.

Turning hacked ideas into a business

#LVHack also included a venture category this year for participants who felt that their hacks could be turned into a prospective business. This group of winners walked away with in-kind prizes that included consulting services from Fitzpatrick, Lentz & Bubba law firm and RLB accounting and tax services.

The top prize in this category went to STEAM Trunk, a leasable party kit full of learning activities for kids. Matt Sommerfield, president of MTS Ventures, came up with the idea when his company sponsored the paper rocket tent at Lehigh Valley Mini Maker Faire two years ago. Sommerfield’s team threw an impromptu paper rocket party in a local park in order to attract parents and kids who were surveyed for customer preferences and market validation data.

What does someone print with a chocolate 3-D printer?

A special prize was awarded to a project pitched by 9-year-old Annabelle Petit. She wanted to build a 3-D printer that printed using chocolate. The pitch attracted help from several “grown-ups” including Caroline Multari, a Lehigh University Ph.D. candidate researching material sciences. The team received a “Learning Curve” prize from the judges because they learned the most during the weekend.

“The team came in on Friday night knowing nothing about 3-D printing,” explains Jared Steckel from Make Lehigh Valley who served as a judge. “They spent most of Saturday learning how a 3-D printer worked and by Sunday afternoon, they had modified an existing 3-D printer so it could safely print with chocolate. That’s a pretty amazing leap in knowledge.”

Cecilia Petit, Annabelle’s mother, feels that exposing her daughter to learning opportunities like #LVHack is an important part of raising her daughter.

“Truth be told, this was also my first extracurricular hackathon, but as I hoped, the atmosphere was very similar to that of a good research environment in that it highlighted the importance of collaboration, the overall problem-solving process, and the joys of the hard-fought technical victory,” explains Petit. “Annabelle may have picked up a few technical concepts along the way, but at her age, I think the most significant benefit was getting a feel for the process of innovation—and having fun doing it.”

 

In addition to FLB Law and RLB Accounting, sponsors included the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation and Lehigh University’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation.

“The Lehigh Valley has a long history of innovation and entrepreneurship, and helping foster that innovation is a big part of our organization’s mission to help businesses come here, grow here, and start here,” said Matthew Tuerk, LVEDC’s Vice President of Economic Development and Marketing. “Organizations like Allentown Economic Development Corporation help demonstrate that the Lehigh Valley is rich with resources for local entrepreneurs, all of which help create jobs and contribute to Lehigh Valley’s continued growth into a vibrant, multifaceted economy.”